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Showtime's "Our Cartoon President" skewers the Trump administration with the audacity of a preteen who's just discovered swear words. But that's nothing out of the ordinary: Pop culture has taunted The Donald with mocking impersonations since before he stunned his most gleeful detractors by winning the 2016 presidential election.
If anything about "Our Cartoon President" is shocking, it's that a political humorist and commentator as sharp as Stephen Colbert would put his name on a TV series with an approach to executive satire so overused that it's already calcified into an embarrassing cliché.
It's easy to make fun of Trump. To a very limited extent there's even value in making fun of Trump. But Trump parody stopped being amusing around April of last year, when Comedy Central premiered Anthony Atamanuik's "The President Show" — an unfunny show produced by otherwise funny people. Honestly, it might have stopped being amusing long before that; "Saturday Night Live" trotted out Alec Baldwin and an ever-increasing coterie of guest stars and supporting cast members to laugh at Trump's cabinet and family members too often too quickly, and became repetitious to the point of obnoxiousness.
"Our Cartoon President" isn't new, then, just heightened, an extreme exaggeration of Trump's life, times, scandals, policies and persona, but filtered through the format of Sunday night adult animation. The premise, boiled down to basics, is something in the neighborhood of "Donald Trump by way of Peter Griffin," which despite the assurances given in the first episode's pre-credits scene has the effect of nearly humanizing him. That's not quite as bad as fully humanizing him, but it's bad enough, and beside, as cartoon Trump tells us, "After my recent physical, Dr. Ronny assured me that I am a human being, and there's no cure for that!" How do you portray Trumpian foolishness using the lens of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" without kinda sorta making him seem like a regular guy (who is worth billions of dollars, and also runs the United States)?
That's all part of the joke, but it's a variation on a joke that television comedy has told one time too many. Trump, whether played by Alec Baldwin on "Saturday Night Live" or Atamanuik on "The President Show," routinely sees himself as hard done by, perhaps a victim of circumstance, all the while oblivious to his accountability, his complicity and his role in shaping his own image.
He's a naif in charge of the most powerful country in the world, and without the credentials (or the morality) required to lead it. Take that basic structure and you can reliably freshen it up week in and week out based on whatever distracting scandal he's managed to foment in the headlines of major, minor and middling media outlets alike. First it's his ties to Russia. Then it's the growing rift between him and Melania. Then it's his creepy obsession with Ivanka. Then it's his alleged dissatisfaction with his job. Then it's his comments about Haiti, his physical health, his looks and then back to his ties to Russia. The cycle goes on.
The formula has gone stale. It's not that there isn't a possibility the rumors -- so central to shows like "Our Cartoon President" — are authentic, or that the rumors don't matter, especially the mounting evidence in Robert Mueller's Russia probe. It's that save Russia, comedy has chosen to hang onto the least substantial details of Trump's presidency, the details that he's quickest to write off as fake news, the details that poke good, clean, harmless fun at him while eliding the more sobering consequences of his actions. Somehow, writers still think that cracking wise about his mental stability or his intellect for the umpteenth time counts as edgy. It doesn't. Anyone can take the mickey out of Trump for the stupid things he says or tweets, and for the record, he does say and tweet primarily stupid things, from the nonsensical to the factually wrong. (See: His brag about his State of the Union numbers.)
Snickering at Trump’s ignorance favors his cartoonishness at the expense of his amorality, and one is rarely divorced from the other: He’s a clown, but he’s a clown with the power to demonize minority groups and nudge our country toward nuclear war. Trump is so easily caricatured that caricature should by now be passé. Instead, it's still de rigueur. Remarkably, "Our Cartoon President" feels obsolete thanks entirely to the satire that facilitated its production.
All Colbert and his showrunning cohorts — Chris Licht, Matt Lapin, Tim Luecke and R.J. Fried — have done is colored in the edges around the caricature with excessive vulgarity, and the more vulgar Trump is allowed to be in fiction, the less vulgar he seems in reality. He becomes harmless. That isn't the goal of shows like "Our Cartoon President" or "The President Show" or "Saturday Night Live," or it shouldn't be. But surface-level lampooning just provides an escape to the tweets and news alerts we see on our phones every morning when we wake up, and the endless coverage Trump gets on television and in the papers. Instead of feeling outraged or horrified by him, we can just change the channel and chuckle at him.
That's innocuous within reason, but we're beyond reason. Our perspective on Trump needs to change. Instead of making narratives to satirize him directly, instead of only laughing at him, perhaps we need to take him seriously. Needle Trump every now and again if you like. Getting under his skin has its benefits. But turning him into spectacle is a meaningless gesture when spectacle is his bread and butter.
For pop culture to stay relevant, it has to get wise to the truth of Trump: He isn't our cartoon president, but he is our television president.
"Our Cartoon President" airs on Showtime at 8 p.m. EST Sundays.
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